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This ain’t your grandad’s conservation easement

Easements are changing with the times, making it less restrictive for producers to protect their wetlands

Producers can find the right buyers for their marginal lands — if they know where to look.

“There is a market out there now for some of these parcels of land that producers might have a hard time off-loading because they’re wet,” said Warren Robb, provincial policy specialist at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

And his organization just happens to be in the market.

“We purchase a parcel of land, restore the wetlands, restore the uplands, put a conservation easement on the title, and then we sell it back to the agricultural community,” said Robb.

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“When we put a conservation easement on the title, we’re selling this land for 20 or 30 per cent less on some of this land. But we’ve reseeded the uplands and re-established it, so cattle producers would be able to purchase a brand new grass stand for 80 cents on the dollar.”

Ducks Unlimited Canada put on a pair of workshops this fall tailored for realtors in Alberta where it highlighted the challenges and opportunities of buying and selling land that has a conservation easement on it.

Pedigreed seed grower Shawn Jacula attended the workshop with his “real estate hat” on — he also owns RE/MAX Prairie Realty in Vermilion. But as a farmer, he sees the potential benefits of putting conservation easements on his marginal land and producing ‘ecosystem services’ (conservation efforts given a dollar value by organizations like Ducks Unlimited Canada).

“There is a lot more opportunity, especially on the pasture side,” said Jacula, who farms near Vermilion. “It’s something I’m considering and will want to think about when working land and purchasing future land.”

Like many farmers, Jacula had some misconceptions about Ducks Unlimited Canada.

“Their programs have changed from the old system that I heard about but never really experienced directly,” he said. “They are active buyers in our real estate market. And not only are they a potential buyer for your land, but in the event that a purchaser wishes to take advantage of some of their programs, it could help them financially as far as making their land more environmentally conscious.”

In many cases, the marginal land Ducks Unlimited Canada purchases “shouldn’t have been broken anyway,” said Robb. “That’s the land we’re turning back into grazing land for cattle producers.”

Restrictions

Of course, there are restrictions that come with any conservation easement — and that’s what has turned producers off them in the past.

“The biggest barrier is that there are restrictions put on the land that really cannot be removed,” said Jacula. “It’s not a decision that is going to last during one individual ownership — it’s going to stick with the title of the property.”

But the restrictions aren’t as stringent as some people may think, Robb added.

“Conservation in the past might have been looked at through a negative perspective — ‘If we put some kind of conservation program on our land, we’re going to be restricted,’” he said.

“Not anymore. There are not a lot of restrictions to it. Our rules are simply don’t break the uplands and don’t drain the wetlands.”

Even so, producers will need to do their homework.

“It’s something an individual should be educated on before they proceed with a conservation program,” said Jacula. “It all comes down to where the property is and what its potential future use could be — if there’s any type of other uses that might come up down the road.

“This is not going to be for everybody. But if they do their homework, it’s something that could benefit them financially and on the environmental side of things as well.”

For farmers not ready to commit to a conservation easement, Ducks Unlimited Canada offers other conservation programs, Robb added.

“There are a lot more opportunities for conservation for landowners now, so hopefully they start exploring the benefits of it. It’s money in their pocket.”

But wetland restoration is the “biggest bang for their buck” right now.

“It’s a 10-year lease, and we restore just the wetland,” he said. “If they want to restore a wetland, we’re paying 100 per cent of the full market value for them to do that, and that’s the only part of the parcel of land that we have the agreement on.

“A lot of the time, they’re not getting production off it anyway. If we can pay them 100 per cent of fair market value for that, they’re coming out ahead. That’s a pretty good deal for land that’s going to waste.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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